there is in the life of every painting, a time when real, lasting choices have to be made, and there’s no going back from there. in this case, it’s time to completely ruin its value as a watercolor by gluing it down to a board and putting a coat of varnish over it.
ooh, anathema, you cry. intense discomfort, anxiety and fear overcome you. why, it’s just wrong.
yeah, well. tough.
you may notice that the photos accompanying this blog post aren’t of the marie’s fountain painting. that’s because i found it necessary to perform a couple of experiments before taking the final steps quite so irrevocably. bear with me.
i was thinking about it this afternoon – the first time i’d been able to spend any time in the studio for about a week. jim and i had cut the panel a couple of days ago, and i was standing around downstairs waiting for a couple of coats of black gesso to dry on it. i was putting on a couple of layers of black, and then i was mixing up some burnt umber and ultramarine blue and put it on over that, to enrich the black. and then since we didn’t have any green earth acrylic mixed up, i took some matte medium and a couple of knives-full of terre verte pigment (and some chrome green, which is opaque), and mixed it up as a final glaze. this went on streaky, because i am lousy at mixing, and don’t really care. i actually liked the streaks, so i made sure to use up all the green acrylic mix painting the edges where it might actually show once the paper was down.
but i hate acrylic. it’s so dead. it smells funny. it’s lifeless and dull. yuk. this is the part i like the least, the coating out and sticking on part. i’m not yet comfortable with it, and the plasticity, the fakeness of the medium really bothers me. like using some sort of fiberglass that you just know is breaking down your liver. (this is me who chooses to breathe hot orange oil fumes instead of doing encaustic the ‘right’ way by overheating beeswax and ventilating my studio with a vacuum attachment over my nose. selective squeamishness.)
i was actually thinking – why not use wax to stick the painting down and varnish it? marie’s husband keeps bees, after all, and would appreciate a topcoat of shiny, fragrant beeswax over the painting. wouldn’t he? i was in the midst of talking to jim about this when i thought, well, i need to experiment with this one before i decide.
i’d just been regarding the 8″ strip i’d torn off of the thumbs-up-diner painting i’m trying to finish now. i was looking at it sitting on top of the trashcan and thinking what a shame it was that i was fixing to crumple up this fine watercolor paper and toss it in the garbage. i should use the back of it, or something.
so i snatched up the paper, found a piece of hardboard (masonite, in this case quite literally, even tho they haven’t made masonite in years – that’s how old our stock of panels is), and got out the acrylic matte medium and the jar of beeswax and orange oil.
if i were going to mount a painting, i’d use a lot more care than this. but i was actually happy for the excuse to rip up paper and slap acrylic on it and smoosh it down with my fingers and coat it with ooky acrylic medium with my fingers. it was gooky, i had to use a paper towel, and i got acrylic medium all over my palette knife.
i guess it’s time to explain the picture above. the top half of the photo shows strips of paper towel marked with black where i had been coating out the panel. on top of this in the right hand corner is a bunch of torn-up strips of watercolor paper. the section on top is the continuation of the torn up piece on the bottom left. you can see the edges of the unpainted framed picture, and the shirt on some guy’s back.
the bottom half of the photo shows the board, which is coated out with gray acrylic gesso. on the right is the top part of the painting strip, the ceiling with the yellow clock and a light fixture hanging beside it. that’s the part i glued down with acrylic using my fingers and a lot of goop. the left side looks cloudy, and that’s because it has a fresh coat of wax over it. i carved some out of the jar with my palette knife, scraped it over the back of the painting and then put it down and took a brayer to it (a rubber roller to press out the air bubbles). then i carved out some more wax and smeared it on the surface, and tried my damnedest to smooth it out with my fingers, but since i never took the time to thin the wax out to a workable consistency, i deserved the way it soaped up and flaked. it reminded me of the way wax acts when you whip it for funky candle effects.
the first thing i noticed was that nothing i was doing to the watercolor paper was causing the least little bit of running. when you put something wet down onto watercolor, you expect the colors to run. but there was no movement at all from putting sloppy acrylic down, and no movement under the wax either. perhaps gum arabic doesn’t react with wax, fine, but acrylic is water-based and you’d think watercolor would move right away. but, like i said, nothing. perhaps it’s because this painting is so old. gum arabic hardens more with time, and some of the watercolors i’ve had sitting out on the palette for fifteen years or so just won’t dissolve up anymore. so maybe that’s it.
the second thing i noticed was that i should have used bleached beeswax. you can see the difference in the whites. the torn edges of the piece on the right are white white, and so is the face of the clock and the light fixture. on the left hand piece, the whites are yellowed. it’s not a whole lot, but it’s significant.
on this second picture, you can see the results. just not very well.
the third thing i noticed was that it takes so much longer to put on and burn in a coat of wax than it does to slap a coat of acrylic on both sides and smoosh it down. the right side, the side i used the acrylic on, was down, stuck, and dried in a matter of minutes. but it showed brushstrokes, or in this case, fingermarks. there’s no reason to have brushstrokes on a watercolor. aesthetically it’s kind of offensive. that’s been the trouble with the two watercolors i’ve mounted and varnished so far. the varnishes i’ve used have been put on with a brush, and it has left brushstrokes. the answer to this is to thin the acrylic way down and use an atomizer to apply it. but i haven’t done that yet, partly out of fear of violating the manufacturer’s directions on the uv topcoat i’ve been using (which in general call for way more than is necessary just so you have to go out and buy more).
it took a good half an hour to burn in the wax on the left piece of paper. i use a heat lamp, so burning in is always tedious, slow but sure, and i had to go back several times to melt out drips and lumps. i was worried about scorching the paper most of all. this is because when i did an encaustic on top of canvas mounted on board, i ended up scorching the cotton of the canvas. and watercolor paper is made of cotton. but tho the paper absorbed some of the wax in spots, it didn’t scorch the paper, or change the colors.
the funny thing was that the wax melted gast or slow, according to the underlying color. (i totally expect this in encaustic, where the pigment is mixed in with the wax which you then melt. but this was a finished watercolor and dry as a bone, and i didn’t expect dried pigment to have a similar effect. tho, because it’s all a matter of albedo, it’s obvious that it should have. it just surprised me, and seemed even more pronounced than when i’m just burning in pigmented wax.) where there was black, as in the area near the roof, around the frame, and the guy’s hair, the wax melted the fastest and it seemed the watercolor would run because it was molten everywhere there was black, and still translucent yellow wax everywhere else. but tho the wax was molten, the underlying granularity of the black was accentuated but didn’t go anywhere.
when wax is molten, it’s clear. you can see right down into it, and everything looks just as wet and intense as it can. when the wax cools, it becomes translucent again, and you lose some of the wetness, the clarity, the depth. it retains enough of these properties to be intriguing as hell, but the only one who sees the clarity and depth is the artist. the viewer never sees this, and it’s a pity, because this is wax at its most magical.
there was one place where the wax holding the painting onto the board melted, and ran out underneath the paper, which began to lift off. but while it was still molten i stuck it down with a finger, and it stayed just fine. once it hardened, i could see that the yellowness was much abated, but still obvious, the colors were a bit muted but not at all runny, and the surface of the paper wasn’t entirely even and i would have to go back and cover spots with the necessary re-melting and all the trouble it can be to keep the melt lines smooth. else that or scrape it with a razor blade.
because i still wasn’t sure about the non-running part of all this, i took that piece of paper that had the continuation of the picture frame and the guy’s shirt, ripped that in half, and dunked the top strip into a basin of water for five seconds. you can see above that nothing ran at all, even after dunking, and this isn’t usual, so it must be the age of the painting. which means i’m going to have to seal my freshly painted watercolor surface before i even glue it down to the board.
what have i decided to do? i don’t know yet. jim is pretty strong on the idea that i should mount it with acrylic, since it’s more permanent than wax, which might slip a little on a hot day, tho it would have to be over 100 inside the house, and we’re the only fools who’d stand for that (and our encaustics are fine, thanks). and he’s pretty insistent that i coat out the surface with acrylic before putting anything on top, just in case. all the tiny details and sharp-focussed work i did on marie’s fountain, it shouldn’t be ruined by a careless top coat. and i agree with that.
so tomorrow the testing i have to do is to go back to the right side of the board and put a coat of wax over the acrylic-coated paper, burn that in, and see what it looks like. if i like the look of the wax on top of the acrylic, then i can proceed with it on the real painting. and if not, then i can continue to refine the acrylic coating until i’m happy with the no-brushstrokes look i’m aiming for. and then i can put it all together. but i really need to think about doing it in wax. it’s so appropriate.